My dad, Jack, turned 87 this year. He was born in 1923 in Broken Hill and soon after his father, mother and five brothers and sisters went to Mount Leonard station, some 110 miles north of Birdsville where Dad’s father, Pop, became the station manager.
It was an isolated, desolate, and punishing life. Pop would be away for days mustering cattle with drovers and local aboriginals. Ruby, Dad’s mother, would struggle to educate, feed and parent the six children. They battled dust storms, drought, snakes and heat. But finally the isolation won and Ruby left Pop, taking the two girls with her to live in Sydney. Dad and his brothers, Peter, Laurie and Terry, were left to work on the station, then to board in Birdsville at the pub while they attended the local school, student population 13.
I have just enjoyed the privilege of travelling to Birdsville with Dad and my brother, Ken. We had five days in this remarkable outback town and learnt a lot about country hospitality and resilience.
I had expected primitive conditions and depressing isolation.
But I was wrong. Birdsville 2010 is a thriving township with interesting and energetic people who know exactly how to make strangers feel at home. We stayed at the local caravan park and were particularly overwhelmed by the kindness of Don, the temporary manager, who collected us from the airport and insisted on driving Dad and Ken and I to the cemetery where Dad was able to visit his father’s grave.
Just prior to our visit a local indigenous lady had passed away and her grave was being prepared for a funeral on the Friday. The respect shown by the locals, black and white, was genuine and virtually the whole town was going to close as a mark of respect on the day of the funeral.
In fact it was uplifting to observe the easy relationships which seem to exist between the blacks and whites; there was no discernible racism just a sense of mutual respect and friendship.
Ken had been concerned that we might have trouble filling in the five days, but we had trouble fitting everything in. We started off at the Birdsville Bakery and enjoyed their coffees and home baked pies. None of us attempted the camel pie, but you always need to leave something for next time…
The Working Museum is a treat for young and old – the artefacts and machinery seemed to unleash a flood of memories for Dad as we wandered through. And I got to see my first “Furphy” – the water tank which gave rise to the term ‘furphy’ which is a rumour, fostered by chat around the water tank.
The highlight of our trip was the overnight visit to Mount Leonard station, as guests of Chook and Lorraine Kath, who now manage it. This was old fashioned hospitality at it’s best with Lorraine collecting us from town and driving us all the way out to the station. We were well entertained by Chook and Lorraine’s three children, Cassandra, Leah and the indefatigable Jacob and his hippy dance. The next morning Chook drove and walked us around the property discussing cattle, weather and the old times with Dad. Afterwards Lorraine drove us to next-door cattle station, Durrie, where our charter pilot was awaiting our arrival. Rod then flew us back to the Birdsville Airstrip, parking a few metres from the pub where we enjoyed a celebratory beer and local beef hamburgers.
Our last day, Friday, saw us visiting the Birdsville School where the headmaster (of six pupils), Michael, shared old photos and stories with Dad.
This was my first visit to Dad’s hometown and I learnt a lot. I learnt to live without a mobile phone and internet and not feel the need to be ‘connected’ 24 hours a day. I learnt to slow down, to wander and think of nothing in particular. I learnt that indigenous and white Australians can get on well if left alone.
But most important of all, I learnt that there are people such as Don, Chook and Lorraine and Peter from the pub who take the time to listen to the memories of older Australians such as my Dad and make him feel very special.
This is probably nothing to them; they do it because it comes naturally and they enjoy it.
But for Ken, Dad and I it was huge – a confirmation that the age of generosity is alive and well even if you need to go to Birdsville to find it.
What about you? Have you “gone back” with your parents to the place of their childhood? How did it work? What did you learn?